WASHINGTON -- Plenty of can’t-miss celebrities have sat courtside at AmericanAirlines Arena to watch the Heat pursue a third consecutive NBA title.
Last Saturday, though, two pivotal men in the Marlins’ future were taking in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals together: slugger Giancarlo Stanton and owner Jeffrey Loria.
Could a rare Saturday night on the town together be a sign one of the best young players in baseball and the Marlins are ready to commit to each other long-term?
“That had nothing to do with any of that,” Stanton told the Miami Herald on Wednesday before the Marlins beat the Nationals 8-4 in 10 innings to improve to 28-25 and move within a half-game of the division-leading Atlanta Braves, who open a three-game series at Marlins Park on Friday.
“It’s great for people to speculate,” Stanton continued. “But, no, [we aren’t discussing a contract]. Nothing new.”
It’s hard to blame Marlins fans for feeling hopeful. So far, everything Stanton said he wanted to see happen before extending his career here beyond the 2016 season has been happening on the field. The Marlins are winning, and he has stability and support in the lineup.
A year ago at this time, the Marlins were 13-41, 19 1/2 games back in the division race. And Stanton was miserable.
The last time Stanton felt this good about the Marlins? June 3, 2012, when the Marlins were 31-23 and tied for first place in the division.
It all went downhill after that. The front office blew up the team’s blueprint, trading All-Stars for younger, cheaper and unproven players. And it angered Stanton. Now, after spending a little money to bring in veterans Casey McGehee, Garrett Jones and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Marlins are thriving. And so is Stanton.
The Marlins’ 246 runs scored ranks sixth in baseball. Miami was dead last in offense last year.
Stanton, meanwhile, is hitting .318 (he has never hit better than .290), leads the majors in RBI (49) and the National League with 15 home runs.
“I feel like we’re all working together finally,” Stanton said Monday after his two-run home run led the Marlins to only their second win at Nationals Park in 14 games.
“You can say it, but in the way I’m trying to explain it is we all understand what type of hitters we are. Everyone is getting on. I’m getting on for McGehee. [Derek] Dietrich and [Christian] Yelich are getting on for me. It’s a complete cycle that keeps going on. Everyone has been relaxed and done a good job with runners in scoring position.”
Closer Steve Cishek has been a teammate of Stanton about as long as anyone. He joked Wednesday he’ll hold off from going to the bathroom during games if he knows Stanton is due up to hit. Asked if he has seen a happier Stanton this season than in the past, Cishek said Stanton hasn’t changed.
“He’s still the same guy,” Cishek said. “He’s always quiet. It’s hard to explain. He’s quiet, but he’s not quiet. He walks in here and everyone knows he’s in here.
“He was the same last year. Even though he didn’t seem happy because we were losing, he was still great around his teammates and stuff. I don’t really think he’s changed that much.”
Manager Mike Redmond said Stanton “is in a good place right now” and credited it to the moves the team made in the offseason as well as Stanton’s improved health. Redmond said Stanton also has improved his pitch selection and is no longer “expanding the [strike] zone.” Redmond said Stanton definitely belongs in this year’s MVP discussion.
“I’ve been fortunate because I’ve played with two guys who won MVPs, and he’s doing every bit of what those guys were doing the years they won,” said McGehee, who played alongside Ryan Braun in Milwaukee in 2011 and was a teammate briefly of last season’s MVP, Andrew McCutchen in Pittsburgh.
“The scary thing is he’s still getting better,” McGehee said. “There’s still more in there, and that’s a really, really scary thought. ... For a lot of pitchers it’s not going to be a lot of fun.
“He’s hit what, 15 homers? And I think one has been ho-hum. It’s not even the homers. It’s some of the singles he hits, seeing the guys’ reactions as the ball goes by them. It’s ridiculous how hard he’s hitting the ball. When he gets a pitch to hit and he’s on time, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw it. He’s going to catch up to it.”
Now the question is will the Marlins be able to hold on to Stanton? He’s making $6.5 million this season, his first year of arbitration following an injury-riddled, mediocre 2013 season (.249, 24 HRs, 62 RBI).
With two years left in arbitration, Stanton’s next bill could be three times what he’s making now. As a result, Stanton’s trade value would be highest after this season. It’s also why the Marlins are expected to offer him a contract extension before 2015 — to find out which way he’s leaning.
Does he like playing for the Marlins? “Yes,” Stanton said flatly before turning away to get dressed at his locker. “I do.”
• Friday: Marlins RHP Tom Koehler (4-4, 3.10 ERA) vs. Atlanta Braves RHP Julio Teheran (4-3 1.77), 7:10 p.m., Marlins Park.
• Saturday: Marlins RHP Jacob Turner (1-2, 5.35) vs. Braves RHP Ervin Santana (4-2, 4.06), 4:10 p.m., Marlins Park.